C.J. Spiller, Saints:
After a surprising and successful 2012 season in which he amassed more than 1200 yards on a blistering 6.0 YPC, Spiller was seldom used by the Bills last year, who preferred to lean on veteran Fred Jackson. With the acquisition of LeSean McCoy in the offseason, the 27-year-old signed with the Saints, who had a solid running game headed by Mark Ingram. Spiller gets an automatic boost playing alongside a top-flight quarterback like Drew Brees. With coach Payton favoring a running back-by-committee approach, look for Spiller to share the workload with Ingram on a weekly basis. After seeing flashes of his potential simmer down, Spiller will do well in a run-emphasized offense, even if his playing time is significantly less than other starting backs.
Charles Sims, Buccaneers:
Sims did not see playing time until December last year, as the Bucs went with the injury-prone Doug Martin. However, as trade rumors revolving Martin persist, it’s impossible to ignore Sims’s potential as a number one back, even if it’s on a team that struggles to block efficiently for their backs. Sims averaged 2.8 YPC with a tiny sample size, which initially does seem discouraging. However, starting back Doug Martin did not fare much better, with a 3.7 YPC. As the 39th running back in terms of draft placement, the second year back shows potential and has a high ceiling. I could see him going a couple of rounds early as a safe, low-risk selection.
David Johnson, Cardinals:
While I typically avoid drafting lower-hype rookies, it is easy to be attracted to Johnson simply because of his physical attributes. Boasting a 6’1, 225 pound frame paired with a 4.5 40 yard dash and a 41.5” vertical, the 23-year old out of Northern Iowa has a solid chance to supplant Andre Ellington as the Cards’ starting back. Reputed as a bigger Charles Sims, Johnson can wreak havoc in the backfield and steal more touches from Ellington if the latter’s injury woes persist. Projected as the 59th running back off the board, the rookie is a steal if he indeed falls after the 11th round.
Justin Forsett, Ravens:
After a stunning season in his first year with the Ravens, Forsett transformed Baltimore’s running game, launching them from the 30th rushing offense in 2013 to the 8th spot last year. The 29-year-old finished eighth in fantasy points among RBs and is a feature component of a strong running core. His ADP places him 16th among backs, which is a surprise after he torched defenses for 1,266 yards last season. He is a capable back with excellent vision and hustle; he will be a strong candidate to finish as an elite, top-5 RB this year.
Melvin Gordon, Chargers:
The most hyped rookie coming into the 2015 season, Gordon is a proven superstar at the college level, collecting 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns last year for the Wisconsin Badgers. As receiving back Danny Woodhead is returning from a leg injury, look for Gordon to be the focus of the Chargers’ run game, as Ryan Mathews signed with the Eagles in the offseason. Compared to Jamaal Charles and showing hot flashes of potential, Gordon will pair up nicely with Woodhead to take pressure off of the inconsistent Rivers; the 22-year-old has a lot of upside and will be a workhorse for the Chargers this season.
Honorable mentions: LeGarrette Blount, Patriots; Khiry Robinson, Saints; Ronnie Hillman, Broncos; Lorenzo Taliaferro, Ravens.